Missouri football team's' depth a plus after high-profile departures

Sunday, August 14, 2011

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Missouri lost a pair of top 10 NFL draft picks in April, one on each side of the ball. Yet both offense and defense appear every bit as strong as last year.

James Franklin was impressive in several cameos last season as the backup to quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who's opening the preseason as the Jacksonville Jaguars' starting quarterback. And even without Aldon Smith, who appears poised to make an immediate impact with the San Francisco 49ers, the Tigers have plenty of pass rush threats.

And that was before they got word this week that 310-pound defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson had been cleared academically by the NCAA to play more than 2 1/2 years after committing to the school.

There's very little turnover, with seven starters back on a defense that threw two shutouts last season and only the quarterback and center are new on offense after a 10-3 season.

Success is ingrained now, too. The 40 victories over the last four seasons is the best stretch in school history, even if Missouri has yet to truly become a national power. Coach Gary Pinkel believes his team is ready for the tough round-robin schedule in the reconfigured Big 12 Conference.

"I think the league will be as strong or stronger nationally each and every year, and the competition every week, you'd better bring it," Pinkel said. "You'd better bring everything you've got every week. That's the challenge you have because this is a really, really good conference."

The nonconference schedule looks tough, too. Missouri opens Sept. 3 at home against Miami (Ohio). It went 10-4 and was champion of the Mid-American Conference last season. It is favored to win the conference's East Division this year. Missouri also plays at Arizona State, among the favorites in the Pac-12.

Big 12 play begins with a pair of road games, at Oklahoma on Sept. 24 and at Kansas State on Oct. 8.

The Tigers' underrated defense was sixth in the nation in points allowed, blanking Iowa State on the road and Colorado at home and holding Kansas and McNeese State to single digits.

Only one opponent topped 30 points.

"We have a lot of players back," Pinkel said. "Can we play at a different level and do well there? We'll see."

Smith was out three games with a broken bone in his leg, and Missouri didn't seem to miss him while ranking among the national leaders with 38 sacks, getting 7 1/2 from Brad Madison and 5 1/2 from Jacquies Smith.

Madison, a converted offensive lineman, was second-team All-Big 12 even though he started only two games.

"You go speak at clinics about stuff like that," Pinkel said.

Franklin takes over an offense that averaged 30 points that returns all the top threats. Wide receiver T.J. Moe and all-Big 12 tight end Michael Egnew combined for 182 catches. Jerrell Jackson is a returning deep threat, while the trio of De'Vion Moore, Henry Josey and Kendial Lawrence scored 17 touchdowns while rushing for 1,376 yards.

Pinkel said he's often been asked to compare Franklin with Brad Smith, a more run-oriented quarterback who thrived in the spread offense during the coach's early years at Missouri. Pinkel said Franklin is his first quarterback since Smith who can "extend the play," but noted the sophomore has a good arm, too.

"He's got a good touch," Pinkel said "He's got a lot going for him and I'm excited for him."

Pinkel is counting on the rest of the offense to ease Franklin's burden.

"My suggestion would be, can those nine players play at a higher level than they've ever played before?" Pinkel said. "Can all those guys play up their game to a different level? If they can do that, James Franklin is going to be fine."

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